Public Defender
How to Become a

Public Defender

The complete career guide to be a Public Defender: salary, job growth, employers, best schools, and education you may need to get started.

Why We Love It

  • $136,260
    Potential Avg. Salary
  • 5.6%
    Job Growth Rate
  • Growing Demand
    Job Outlook
  • Deal Making
    Career Attribute

A public defender is a government employee appointed by the courts to a defendant who cannot afford an attorney on their own to represent them in court for a criminal case.  The public defenders job is to represent and provide a defense to the defendant to the best of their abilities in court.

Recommended Schools

What is a Public Defender?

The following responsibilities are common for Public Defenders:

  • Meet with clients and conducts interviews
  • Interrogates clients and witnesses
  • Drafts and dictates legal documents like motions, orders and subpoenas
  • Gathers information and and evidence regarding the defendant and the pending case
  • Conducts mediations and depositions regarding the pending case

A Day In The Life

If an individual finds that they are in indigent and in need of an attorney, it is a requirement of the state to provide that individual with representation, and that attorney is known as a public defender.   A public defenders job is to provide competent counsel and defense to those individuals that cannot afford to pay for an attorney themselves.

Their job includes, but is not limited to, representing an accused individual during criminal court proceedings.  They represent their clients in all court proceedings and hearing leading up to trial.  They handle pre-trial discovery, withdraw pleas and suppress motions and evidence.  They also attend conferences and meetings with judges and district attorneys to try to negotiate lesser charges and plea deals for their clients.

They will also conduct extensive research to prepare for their cases and assist their clients with finding them innocent of pending charges.  During this research they will conduct interviews of witnesses, attend police line-ups, examine evidence like DNA, fingernail scrapings, blood and urine testing.  They also participate in jury selection, make opening and closing statements to the jury during trial, present evidence, and conduct any other necessary legal research to prepare for trial.

Typical Work Schedule

Most public defenders typically work longer hours despite being employed by the government to work the regular full-time working schedule of 40 hours per week. The job commonly gets stressful as you need to represent your clients properly and defend their rights for fair trials. The clients are usually indigent people who are cannot afford hiring an attorney for legal defense. You will spend your time researching laws for your case, writing various documents to submit to court, preparing and representing your clients in court, or negotiating plea bargains. Most of your work as a public defender will be under pressure, particularly when defending clients in court. The job requires you to be licensed as attorney, which usually requires completing a law degree, passing a state’s bar exam, and being admitted to the state’s bar association which will take a relatively long time to acquire.

Projected Job Growth

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of lawyers in general is expected to increase by 4 % from 2019 to 2029 which is as fast as the average for other jobs. The demand for legal work is expected to continue for individuals as well as all levels of government which require legal services. However, different budget constraints at different levels of government, especially the federal level, my affect the rate of employment as well as the workload of the job. Yet, competition for jobs will be high because more students are graduating from law school each year with limited available vacancies. Certain skills will be helpful for this competition like the willingness to relocate and to be licensed in another state which may require taking an additional state bar examination.

Typical Employers

There are around 15,000 public defenders working for around 957 state-funded public defender offices besides federal and privately funded offices. As a public defender, your typical employer is the government at different levels. This means that the job will be tied to the state of the district and the available budget which may force you to take more cases than usual making the job quite stressful.

Recommended Schools

How To Become a Public Defender

In order to become a public defender, a student must first acquire a four year undergraduate degree, ideally in criminal justice, government or business management.  Their legal education should focus on skills like defense and  evidence.  Students must then complete the LSAT in the state that they want to practice law in.  This tests the students skills in critical thinking, reading and analytical questioning skills.   Admission to law school is extremely competitive and requires excellent grades in the undergraduate program and on the LSAT exams.

Law school then requires three years of study from the student. During the first year, students learn basic law subjects like, property, tort and constitutional law.  The second and third year are dedicated to elective classes and internships to assist the student attain where they would like to concentrate their primary focus of the type of law that they want practice.

Learning will continue after a student completes law school.  Most jurisdictions and states require individuals complete education in indigent defense strategies.  They also require individuals to take continuing education courses.  An aloted amount of hours must be completed each year.

Public Defender Salary Data

We’ve provided you the following to learn more about this career. The salary and growth data on this page comes from recently published Bureau of Labor Statistics data while the recommendations and editorial content are based on our research.

National Anual Salary

Low Range




High Range


National Hourly Wage

Low Range




High Range


How do Public Defender salaries stack up to other jobs across the country? Based on the latest jobs data nationwide, Public Defender's can make an average annual salary of $136,260, or $66 per hour. On the lower end, they can make $76,300 or $37 per hour, perhaps when just starting out or based on the state you live in.

Salary Rankings And Facts

  • #22 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Average Salary Nationally

Programs and Degrees

Here are the most common degrees for becoming a Public Defender. a is usually recommended and specifically a degree or coursework that prepares you for the particular field, see below.

Highest Education Among Public Defenders

  • 91%   Doctorate
  • 4.1%   Masters
  • 3.5%   Bachelors
  • 0.5%   Associates
  • 0.4%   College
  • 0.4%   High School
  • 0.1%   Less than High School

Job Growth Projections and Forecast

2014 Total Jobs


2024 Est. Jobs


Job Growth Rate


Est. New Jobs


How does Public Defender job growth stack up to other jobs across the country? By 2024, there will be a change of 43,800 jobs for a total of 822,500 people employed in the career nationwide. This is a 5.6% change in growth over the next ten years, giving the career a growth rate nationwide of Above Average.

Growth Rankings And Facts

  • #401 Nationally for All Careers

  • Above Avg. Growth Nationally

What Companies Employ The Most Public Defenders

Industry Current Jobs New Jobs Needed % Increase
Legal services 376,100 22,100 22%
Self-employed workers 165,500 -1,800 -2%
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 55,600 5,300 5%

Want To Be a Public Defender? Get Started!

Generate your free SmartPlan™ to identify colleges you like, and potential ways to save on a degree or certification program toward your career with courses, offers, and much more!

Enroll Now and Get Started

or Learn More →